David McCartney discovered a gap in the University of Iowa Library archives a few years ago: A dearth of Daily Iowan issues spanning from August 1918 to May 1919 — the height of the influenza pandemic.
“There was no university archives at that time, and the main library as we know it today did not exist,” said McCartney, a special collections archivist at the university. “There were some informal personal collections, but the central library at that time did not have archives.”
In the century since, the libraries’ ability to document history as it happens has improved. That is why The University of Iowa Libraries is working with the campus’ Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio to ensure there are records of the current coronavirus pandemic.
This project of documenting COVID-19 was something McCartney remembers beginning to be discussed this past March, once it became increasingly clear the University of Iowa would have to shut down in-person classes for the semester.
Over the past month, McCartney and his co-workers have begun collecting materials to reflect this moment in history.
“I think a question that would be of interest to a lot of people (in the future) would be the impact that this had on day-to-day living,” McCartney speculated.
Those more personal anecdotes and experiences — about how work and studying have changed — are things that are not typically as thoroughly cataloged in newspapers.
It’s those kinds of stories McCartney’s been left wishing there were more of — even after filling in some of the missing issues — relative to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
“How did (people) change their work habits? How did they change their study habits?” he said. “There were telephones and some very limited means of communication — (it would be interesting) to compare and contrast that period with today.”
Currently, the UI is collecting photos, video and written testimonials. They’re even encouraging people to simply gill out a questionnaire posted to the UI Libraries’ website. Other virtual materials can also be submitted through the Web.
According to Matthew Butler, the research manager and senior developer for the university’s digital studio, the project has gathered a little more than 50 submissions as of this reporting.
“It’s been sort of a mix (of stuff),” Butler said. “We had one (University of Iowa) class who did it as part of an assignment … and from the community we’ve gotten just pictures of neighborhoods. People documenting their hand-sewn masks, documenting closed signs on the playground.”
Although submissions currently have no fixed deadline, the two collaborating UI entities eventually will look at what’s been collected and decide how best to display the information.
According to Butler, it all depends on the volume. The final project could be a timeline or a digital map of the area that allows visitors to view significant images and stories based on the location they click.
“Right now, we’re just working really hard to make sure people have a chance to see it and have a chance to respond,” Butler said.
Meanwhile, the State Historical Society of Iowa, which helped the UI fill in the aforementioned Daily Iowan archives, has been working on its own collection of material relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
Leo Landis, the museum curator for the State Historical Museum of Iowa, said the State Historical Society is looking for material to similar to that of the UI Libraries. In particular, they’re interested in Midwest- and Iowa-specific stories and anecdotes from this time frame.
“When we get a story from a person’s perspective, it adds the faces and the narratives of the individual stories to the tapestry of Iowa history that makes it compelling,” Landis said.
In addition to these personal stories, the State Historical Society also expects to begin gathering more physical items later this year. Things such as handmade face masks, commonplace materials in recent weeks, will likely be of interest to future Iowans looking back at our present.
Whether the material is physical or digital, those willing to contribute can do so via a submission form from the organization. Like the UI Libraries, the State Historical Museum plans to make these submissions viewable down the line.
“We hope that with the collecting effort of what we do now that a future curator, be it in Iowa City of Des Moines, can share the story of the COVID pandemic in Iowa,” Landis said.
Locally, though, the society is still focusing on personal narratives and is just beginning to start active outreach.
“We’d love to have people write a memoir or an essay on their experiences,” said Mary Bennett, the society’s special collections coordinator for Iowa City. “So far, I only have one person that’s keeping a diary; she actually was a COVID victim, and so was her husband.”
If funding comes through, Bennett plans to send individuals into the field later this year and into early 2021 to collect coronavirus-related oral stories from underrepresented populations around Iowa.
Going back through the archives of the 1918 influenza outbreak, Bennett particularly hopes to see more images on file, as that aspect was lacking 100 years ago. Social media has made collecting those images both simpler and more complicated for Bennett.
Cameras and methods to record experiences are nearly universal tools, but the society needs permission to use much of that material.
Whatever ends up in the Iowa City archives in the coming months, though, Bennett has been thrilled to see so many organizations dedicating themselves to filling in this period of history.
“We all work together. We aren’t rivals or competitors. We want the same thing,” she said. “We’re all one big team trying to understand what’s happening in Iowa right now.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet